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Monday, November 16, 2020

Look Forward, not Backward, to Pull the Reader In

A lot of writers have the tendency to look "backward" when writing. They might use a lot of flashbacks, they might have a character think "back" on things, or they may simply refer to events that happened in the past. Sometimes they may even backtrack and reiterate what has already played out on the page, or repeat information the audience already knows. Finally, they may backtrack every time they switch a viewpoint character and spend paragraphs talking about what that viewpoint character thinks and feels about what already happened on page.

As writers, we love looking back. Part of this is because from our perspective, when we understand a character's past we understand the character better, or alternatively, when we understand what events led to the current point of the story, we understand the story better. From a writer's perspective, we may even feel more powerful emotions by linking back to the past regularly.

Looking "backward" in a story isn't necessarily wrong. It has an important role in storytelling. Maybe we do need that flashback, for example. Looking back once in a while also adds authenticity--after all, we all look back from time to time in our personal lives, and a story should be bigger than what's on the page. Your characters should have an existence, a history, before the first chapter. Finally, looking back on occasion can help feed into the sense of cause and effect necessary in a good plot. 

However, unlike the writer, much of the time, for the reader, looking backward is not near as interesting or as effective as looking forward.

Often as writers, we think, if the audience can just see the significance of the past, they'll be drawn into the story. In reality, looking forward does this innately and more powerfully.

The past has already happened. It can't be changed. Which is why you will hear many writers speak out against flashbacks.

But the future--that hasn't happened yet. It can change. So when we look forward to it, the audience automatically gets drawn into and invested into the story.

This creates anticipation and tension. Two elements (that to some extent overlap) that will get the audience to turn page after page.

This is essentially why hooks are so important. Most of the time, hooks get the audience to look forward to, or in other words, anticipate something

Stakes work similarly. When there are significant risks, the audience needs to keep reading to see the outcome.

Thankfully, looking "forward" in a story can sometimes be easier than looking backward (remember how I said it's innately equipped to draw in the audience?). One way to do it is by simply having a line where the viewpoint character thinks about what could happen. It might be something as direct as this:

I was afraid that if I told him the truth tomorrow, he wouldn't like me.

See how that automatically has us anticipating that something bad might happen? Now we need to turn the page!

Other times the line might be more indirect, building off the context of the story, but whatever the case, the viewpoint character is anticipating what might happen, so we are too.

An alternative approach is to give a summary line about what does happen, which begs for more information. (I've heard some say this is "cheating," but I personally don't have a problem with it, if it's not overused.) For example:

To her dread, their alliance only made things worse.

Wait, what? This alliance we just read about makes the situation worse? Now as a reader, I'm looking forward to learning how and why--to getting more information--and I'm wondering, what will the consequences be if things are worse?

In my mind, there are two main, important categories that really draw the audience in:

1- We get the audience to dread (or fear) something might happen.
2- We get the audience to hope something might happen.

Both of these categories are very effective. One is negative and one is positive. But both cause the audience to look forward and therefore anticipate and therefore read more. Readers may worry something bad is going to happen to the character or in a story. Or they may pray something good will happen.

In the writing world, we indirectly talk about the first category a lot. It can bring in a lot of tension. Think about it. This is usually where all the advice about "risks" and "stakes" comes in. What does the character or world have to lose? In a good horror film, we are drawn in by the fear that a character might die, or worse.

We don't talk as much about the second option, which can still be very effective. Hope is a powerful thing. This is where all the advice about giving your character a goal or something he cares about comes in. It works because it gets us to hope for an outcome. In a good romance, we hope that the characters fall in love, or better.

And sometimes, you may be appealing to both of these simultaneously.

In most stories, category one is probably most effective, but don't ignore category two, which is often underestimated.

Utilizing both regularly in your storytelling will get the audience to turn page after page--by getting the audience to look forward.

And I will add that there is a third category, in my opinion:

3- We get the audience to feel curious about something. 


That functions a little differently, but you can read about it here.

So next time you feel tempted to look backward in your story to try to make it more effective, stop and consider if what you really need is to look forward.  


Related Articles:

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Flashbacks"

How to Write Stakes in Storytelling

Reeling Readers in via Curiosity

How to Write Excellent Introspection


  1. This is such good advice for Type A folks like myself who feel compelled to tell everything linearly, leaving out nothing. So boring, both in fiction and in real life.

    1. I used to struggle with this too! And to be honest, I'm still working on making sure I've always got a few lines in each scene that are inviting the audience to look forward and anticipate what *could* happen. I'm getting better at it, but sometimes it takes a little extra brainwork to pause and imagine "forward" instead of "backward."


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